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Ex-Becker County Human Services director clashed with officials, report says

By Nathan Bowe / DL Newspapers

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. – Becker County Human Services Director Nancy Nelson resigned after clashing with other department heads, the county administrator and at least one county commissioner on policy and budget issues.

Other commissioners lost faith in her ability to answer questions about her department or follow through on promises to find the answer and get back to them.

After filing two Minnesota Data Practices Act requests, Detroit Lakes Newspapers gained access to a redacted version of the extensive investigatory report conducted on behalf of the county by Kristi Hastings with the Pemberton, Sorlie, Rufer and Kershner law firm in Fergus Falls.

Interviews were conducted in December and January with Nelson, all five county commissioners, the county administrator, several other department heads and several of supervisors in the Human Services Department who reported to Nelson.

Nelson, who led the Human Services Department for nearly eight years, was placed on administrative leave Feb. 3 and resigned after a closed session of the County Board on Feb. 11.

Under terms of a separation agreement, she received severance pay of $12,550 and was paid for about 10 weeks of unused vacation and sick time. She in turn agreed not to sue the county or commissioners and was provided a minimal letter of reference.

According to Hastings’ report, the push by the County Board to move to centralized accounting was a big part of Nelson’s undoing.

She was never accused of any financial wrongdoing, just obstructing a policy she disagreed with.

Most accounting work in the county was done in the Auditor-Treasurer’s Office, but the Highway Department and Human Services Department each had its own accounting system and staff, which did nonaccounting work as well.

“The implementation of centralized accounting was poisoned by the distrust” between Nelson, the county board and other county leaders, Hastings wrote. “The (Human Services) supervisors and staff were drug into the battle. Multiple supervisors felt pressured to side with ‘their boss,’ Nancy Nelson. Multiple supervisors felt pressured to sign a document that challenged the move to central accounting.”

Nelson was concerned that moving a Human Services computer to the Auditor-Treasurer’s Office would result in the loss of medical privacy and violation of medical privacy laws.

“Nelson chose to notify the Minnesota Department of Human Services and (insurance) plan providers about her concerns with centralized accounting before working with the County Attorney’s Office,” Hastings wrote. “As a result, she made a huge issue of something that, ultimately, turned out to be a non-issue. It is no wonder she lost credibility in the workplace.”

In other findings:

  • Nelson essentially did not participate in developing the most recent Human Services budget. She felt locked out of the process, while county administrative leaders feel they tried to include her, but she refused to cooperate. 

    “The county budget process represents a complete breakdown in communication …” Hastings wrote.

  • After hearing of low morale in the Human Services Department, County Administrator Jack Ingstad directed Nelson to meet with staff as a whole to avoid singling anyone out. 

    After he received an email that she was going to take a “different approach” and look into the matter, Ingstad told her no, saying “she would not be investigating anything or creating an environment of fear.” Nonetheless, Nelson held one-on-one meetings with staff.

  • All five commissioners said they felt Nelson was unprepared at meetings and lacking in follow-through when questions arose that she couldn’t answer. 

    As leader of a large, complex department, “Nelson feels the board ambushes her with questions she cannot anticipate,” Hastings wrote, while “board members feel the questions can easily be anticipated. It is impossible to determine which position is accurate …”

    The example that came back to haunt Nelson involved a Human Services-related bathtub remodel project that cost several thousand dollars and raised questions in a Finance Committee meeting.

    Nelson was asked to gather more information prior to the County Board meeting but forgot to follow up. “As a result, she came into the board meeting unprepared,” Hastings wrote.

    Nelson also was criticized in the report on work performance and leadership issues.

    It is clear, Hastings wrote, “that the communication between Nelson and the entire Board of Commissioners is fraught with frustration. The board feels Nelson is unprepared, a poor leader, and a poor communicator, and Nelson feels the board is out to fire her.”

    The working relationship between Nelson and Ingstad was also strained.

    The administrator “feels Nelson does not follow his direction, is insubordinate and defiant, and provides him with untrue or incomplete information. As a result, he has lost faith in her ability to lead her department.”

    Nelson’s relationship with a number of her direct supervisors was also poor, Hastings wrote. “Several of them see her as a ‘dictator’ who makes decisions without their input. They feel caught between the conflicts between Nelson and so many others in the county. Even the supervisors who support Nelson feel they have been pressured to ‘choose sides,’ ” she wrote.

    These breakdowns caused harm to the working environment in the Human Services Department, she added.

    Nelson lost the trust of Commissioner Barry Nelson, in particular, after providing incorrect information to him on some licensing issues regarding a provider connected to his family.

    Nancy Nelson admitted to the investigator that she had “used the wrong terminology in responding to his questions,” Hastings wrote. “I cannot conclude whether she intentionally provided the wrong information or whether she showed disregard for gathering appropriate information prior to responding to Commissioner Nelson.”

    Nancy Nelson also said she couldn’t answer Commissioner Nelson’s questions about why a particular parent was required to have supervised visitation, because she was not given the parent’s name or initials. The investigator determined that she had been given both the name and the initials.

    “These types of situations between Nelson and Commissioner Nelson have resulted in a breakdown in the communication between them and have harmed their working relationship,” Hastings said in her report.

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